Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) has recovered from a childhood trauma, and is now both married to Gabe (Winston Duke) and the mother of two children. When four strangers force their way into her house one night, Adelaide and her family find themselves face-to-face with murderous doppelgängers intent on replacing them.
Writer/director Jordan Peele follows his excellent film debut Get Out with Us, another social conscious and allegorical slice of screen horror. While a strong film rich in horrific concepts and imagery, it does come across rather like a stereotypical ‘difficult second album’. The talent is there, the ideas are good ones, but the execution feels somewhat muddled and confused. Whereas Get Out was a powerful expression of American race relations from a black point of view, Us reflects on the issue of class. Expressed via a Reagan-era setting of economic aspiration and jealousy between the rich and the very rich, it seems that this time around Peele has bitten off a little more than he can chew. This is an allegory a little too big to encapsulate in a single scary movie.
The imagery, of course, is absolutely superb. The ‘shadows’ that invade Adelaide’s home are the kind of thing of which nightmares are made. The colour palette, dominated by rich hues of red, is eye-catching and arresting. The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis is second-to-none; no surprise given his existing work on It Follows, Split, and Glass. Moment to moment the film is extraordinary, packed with scenes of shocks, scares, and (my personal favourite) rising dread. There is a scale to Us that begins with the personal, and expands further and further as the story goes. For a genre usually obsessed with the claustrophobic and isolated, that is an impressive element.
The film is also surprisingly funny, allowing the audience to recover from each scare with a solid laugh. Adelaide and her family are horror-savvy characters, and sufficiently cynical to take most of the assaults against them in their stride. There is a welcome self-awareness that ensures Us is more broadly entertaining that simply frightening, and opens the experience up to a broad audience. Performances are, across the board, effective and enjoyable. It is overall Nyong’o’s film, with her dominating in a dual role as both Adelaide and her copy (the only one of the shadows who talks). Winston Duke is also strong as Gabe – for audiences only familiar with him from his Marvel appearances will see a sharp contrast. Other members of the cast, including Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, and particularly Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as Adelaide’s children and their copies, deliver excellent work.
Unfortunately the film is at its weakest during its third act, when events slow down for an explanation of what is going on. Horror always works best when it exploits a fear of the unknown, so relatively lengthy monologues providing narrative detail do tend to short-circuit the film’s effectiveness. A last-minute denouement adds a nice final sense of unease, but it is haphazardly foreshadowed during the climax and lacks the full impact it could have made.
It is likely that the biggest challenges facing Us are the expectations of the audience. Get Out felt like a zeitgeist-capturing master work, and it was a near-impossible achievement to repeat. Us is packed with excellent imagery and is easily one of the best horror films of 2019. It also disappoints by explaining its scariest material away.